Strategy (4): Strategy is a practice

This is the fourth post in a series – start here.

Definition of Strategy (as a skill or activity):

Strategy is the dynamic process practice of making, implementing and reviewing big-picture plans (strategies) with the intention of increasing the chances or speed at which you’ll achieve your major goals.

My Practice

In the spirit of refinement through iteration and with a hat-tip to Seth Godin for bringing it front-of-mind, I’m leaning towards the revision above: “dynamic process” becomes “practice of making, implementing and reviewing.”

“Practice” retains the sense of process (and hopefully dynamism) with an added sense both of settled purpose and professionalism (as in, “a doctor’s practice,” or “my meditation practice.”) A practice is something we commit to doing, regularly enough and well enough that it starts to shape us. We are strategists now just because we are able to do it, but because we do do it – we’re practitioners.

Better all the time

Practice also has the bonus sense of “something you do to get better at something.” Strategy-as-practice allows for the idea that this is something we can get better at, both by doing it and by learning and thinking about it (for example, by writing about it).

Lightbulb moments: Davy, de La Rue, Swan, Edison…

It turns out that the idea of strategy as practice is a fairly well established – but still alternative – approach to thinking about strategy. Here’s a nice summary:

Strategy as Practice (SAP) research draws on sociological perspectives to study the micro-activities of strategy work. Rather than seeing strategy as something that organisations have, SAP conceptualises strategy as something that people do; through everyday activity with tools, materials and each other.

Strategy as Practice – Aston Business School

And another:

Strategy-as-practice research focuses on the micro-level social activities, processes and practices that characterize organizational strategy and strategizing… Strategy as practice can be regarded as an alternative to the mainstream strategy research via its attempt to shift attention away from a ‘mere’ focus on the effects of strategies on performance alone to a more comprehensive, in-depth analysis of what actually takes place in strategy formulation, planning and implementation and other activities that deal with the thinking and doing of strategy.

Cambridge Handbook of Strategy as Practice – Introduction

I think they’re onto something.

One Reply to “Strategy (4): Strategy is a practice”

  1. Hi Stu I’ve enjoyed this series. Agree that an activity can be strategic by accident. I wonder if in post (1) there’s room to speak of ‘strategic priorities’? So we often speak of these in my org and for simplicities sake aim for 3-6 priorities that in a sense are meta-strategies. That doesn’t mean we have a lot of other strategy – perhaps most of it unspoken. Would be good to consider how we identify strategies we employ but perhaps unknowingly – how do we recognise these and then have something to measure them against?

    One thing I’ve found helpful is to look back and see that we may have a strategic priority. We then make deliberate plans to pursue that. Now, sometimes it works out but other times that priority is unrealised. Moving on however, we then can see those emergent strategies (OR external events) come along – not planned but nonetheless impacting the strategy. These may pull us towards or away from our overarching priority. So for example we plan to get resources out to folk. We make a it deliberate strategy to do so with printed materials. We are deliberate in seeing thrs through but then along comes COVID. Suddenly we can’t print, but we can do online seminars. We reassess and this emergent strategy/opportunity becomes a way we will reach that initial strategic priority but in a very different way (as you outline in post 2 – there are so many things that can change! Hence it being a practice that requires review.

    Agree that the process of defining these priorities is in itself a strategy to help reach those larger goals (mission mainly).

    Helpful in post 2 to be reminded that even things at level 9 or 10 might be seen as big picture – it all depends on your perspective. Also helpful to point out the ability to step sideways to influence higher levels of strategy.

    I love the idea of strategy of practice. It’s often spoken about as a one-time effort as you said in post 1, and this refined definition really helps here. It is certainly something we DO – I love these quotes above. I sometimes frame this as focussing on OUTCOMES more than OUTPUTS. Would you frame it this way? Outcomes being the higher goals, often more medium-long term that produce change rather than outputs which are often shorter-term tangible products. Both should be measurable, both important, but we more often neglect the (in my opinion) more strategic work of looking at outcomes. Perhaps seeing strategy as a process, as something we do, would help here. Any thoughts on outputs vs outcomes?

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...